The Bucs have found defensive line value at all stages of the draft, such as the sixth round, where they picked Chidi Ahanotu in 1993
Perhaps no position garners more attention on NFL draft day than the defensive line. That is often true on gameday as well, particularly when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are involved. Thus, although the Bucs have one of the most feared defensive fronts in the game, the position is still an intriguing one in any pre-draft analysis.
Like those in all 31 NFL front offices, the Buccaneers' player personnel department is busy evaluating all of the draft-eligible linemen available for the league's 64th annual draft, to be held on April 15 and 16. Obviously, that crew does not wish to reveal its opinions on any specific players or draft strategies. We can, however, take the time before that crucial April weekend to analyze how Tampa Bay currently stands on the defensive line.
First, some numbers that we will apply to each position (contract situations as of 3/18):
Starting spots/Returning starters currently under contract: 4/4
Total players under contract: 9
Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 0/0
Relevant 1999 NFL rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 2nd in pass defense, 3rd in overall defense and 14th in sack percentage
1999 Pro Bowlers/AP All Pros: 1/1
First-round draft picks spent on the position in team history: 7
Overall draft picks spent on the position in the last five years: 10
Clearly, the Buccaneers are flush on the defensive line. None of the nine players who formed the front wall of the Bucs' third-ranked defense have contract issues pending, including a front four of DTs Brad Culpepper and Warren Sapp and DEs Chidi Ahanotu and Steve White. Those four missed just six starts between them in 1999 and led the Bucs to a season sack total of 43, second-best in franchise history.
That Pro Bowler mentioned above is, obviously, Sapp, who was not just a first-team AP All Pro but also the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Sapp, who came just one-half sack shy of matching Lee Roy Selmon's single-season Buccaneer record (13), joined Selmon as the only players in team history to be named Defensive Player of the Year. He is clearly in the prime of his career and one of the top defenders in the league.
The same is true of Culpepper, who continues to toil in relative obscurity despite shedding his 'overachiever' label years ago. Culpepper has started 54 consecutive games for Tampa Bay at nose tackle and has 25 sacks over the last four seasons. He is cerebral, tough and an intense leader on the field.
The numbers above also reflect Tampa Bay's excellent depth at the position, a factor that allowed them to trade former first-round pick DE Regan Upshaw to Jacksonville near the beginning of the 1999 season. Those nine players under contract include four ends, four tackles and a swingman, Tyoka Jackson, who has proven adept at both. DE Marcus Jones and DT Anthony McFarland, in particular, proved in 1999 that the Bucs could be without one of their lauded starters and remain effective up front.
Those nine are also a healthy blend of youth and experience. Ahanotu and Culpepper are two of the team's core veterans, eighth and ninth-year players, respectively, while Sapp is in his sixth NFL year and White is in his fifth. McFarland was the team's first-round draft pick last year and DE John McLaughlin also arrived in last April's draft.
Those two are part of a long and conspicuous Buccaneer draft-day history on the defensive line. The Bucs' seven previous first-round picks spent on the D-line are by far the highest number for any position. The first draft choice in team history was one (Selmon, of course), and he was followed by Ron Holmes in 1985, Eric Curry in 1993, Sapp in 1995, Upshaw and Jones in 1996 and McFarland last year. That does not include Keith McCants, who was listed as a linebacker when drafted in 1990 but spent much of his three Buc seasons as an end.
Like usual, that position will figure prominently in the early goings in this year's draft, whether the Bucs figure into it or not. Among the names often indicated as likely early-round picks are Penn State DE Courtney Brown, Florida State DT Corey Simon, Tennessee DE Shaun Ellis and DT Darwin Walker, Virginia Tech DE John Engelberger, Boston College DT Chris Hovan, Kansas State DE Darren Howard, Southern Mississippi DE Adalius Thomas and Michigan State DE Robaire Smith.
Despite the Buccaneers depth at the position, a high pick on a defensive end or tackle is not out of the question. The Buccaneers were considered strong at the position at this time last year, as well, but could not pass on the opportunity to land McFarland, the top-rated defensive tackle on most draft boards. His presence could help the Bucs for years to come.
At the very least, it is a position that can't be ignored. And that's something the Buccaneers prove on the field almost every fall Sunday.